Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
I have to be honest, Rachit, I wrote the original post in April. I showed it to someone, and they said: ‘sounds like an extended Twitter rant’. So I tucked it away in the back of my mind, hoping that whatever it was that I was feeling would eventually fade as it was exposed to the light of reason and the indirect scrutiny of more nuanced takes. But the intuition didn’t fade. It only grew stronger. So, I posted my extended Twitter rant, for better or for worse.
I will attempt to answer your W’s in a second. But first, let me paint with an extremely broad brush and say the following: my intuition is that the lionization of Scientists and Science develops in the fertile ground left behind by the secularization of society. Humankind needs something to believe in, something to answer the question ‘why?’, and maybe most importantly something to paint the world into the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. Why? As the ‘judge’ says in Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian:
It makes no difference what men think of war… War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
And so we fight, because it is our nature. We wage ‘battles’, we have ‘front-line heroes’, and we have the innocent casualties. And just like in wars, we look to the generals for directions. The scientific experts are, for some, the generals on the ‘good’ side. The idolatry I am pointing to is the cultural force that disproportionately heeds the advice of the generals, without due deliberation by the broader public. It is the force that makes people say things like ‘I am with science,’ ‘defend science’ or ‘listen to the experts.’ If this was a truism, then it would not be worth saying. I think it points to a much deeper feeling of unquestioned idolization of ‘science’ that is not warranted. How do I know it is unwarranted? Well I am, in theory, a ‘practicing scientist’ of sorts; I have seen how the sausage is made and I feel a duty to call these things out.
Now to your questions:
Who is idolizing the ‘experts’?
Some specific examples:
- California Governor Gavin Newsom: “The West Coast is—and will continue to be—guided by SCIENCE.” (Of course you are, what does this even mean if not some sort of idolization or pandering?)
- Former Vice President Joe Biden: “Follow the science, listen to the experts, do what they tell you.” (Self explanatory)
- Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the crisis “a giant experiment in whether the world will listen to scientists, now and going forward.” (Paints the scientists as the ones with the answers)
- Greta Thunberg: ‘We take it for granted, that we listen to the current, best available, UNITED science’ (To say science is united is to miss the point of science)
Are people who aren’t experts allowed to weigh in? You say.. ‘of course’.
According to a Pew research poll, 44% of the U.S. public disagrees with you.
A majority of U.S. adults (54%, including equal shares of Democrats and Republicans) believe the public should play an important role in guiding policy decisions on scientific issues; 44% say public opinion should not play an important role because the issues are too complex for the average person to understand.
Where has it gone wrong? What are the consequences?
The broad consequences is that democracy devolves into oligarchy — the ruling of the few over the many. The 20th century is rife with examples where the idolization of ‘science’ has gone wrong. Eugenics, atom bombs, Chernobyl. The list is long.
If unchecked, this idolization bleeds into academia itself where “recognizable scientists receive disproportionate credit, and therefore trust, in a repeating cycle” in something called the ‘Matthew Effect’. You say that peer review can help rid science. That may be true in an ideal world, but it is not true when certain facts or persons are beyond question and can cause a reviewer their career. There are large parts of science that do not follow a double-blind process and a reviewer’s identity is almost always visible to the editors.
I admit that much of my qualms may be made worse by certain types of media coverage. For example, take this article on the wildfires in California that has the headline ‘Trump Again Rejects Science’. What Trump said was that he thinks ‘science doesn’t know’ what caused the latest fires. This is of course obviously true: there are a number of factors , including climate change. But instead of going for a nuanced rebuttal, the NYT goes for war. Trump vs. Science: round one million and two.
Finally, I raised the notion of aesthetic beauty to make a point about ‘evidence’. Science is not always about observation — there are many things in science that are chosen arbitrarily: out of fashion, politics, and aesthetics. Something that passes peer review has been reviewed by peers that may have the same fashions, the same politics, and the same sense of aesthetics.
In this lovely article called ‘Why trust science?’, Naomi Oreskes (a professor in the history of science at Harvard, but who’s checking — lets not idolize experts here) says that the fundamental reason to trust science is not the ‘scientific method’ (which is rarely how actual ‘science’ is done), but that there is a culture of sustained scrutiny in a form of ‘transformative interrogation’.
Interrogation can be transformative, this blog being a case-in-point. But interrogation is a process that transcends and ultimately supersedes ‘science’. The interrogation of established dogma in the protestant reformation perhaps gave rise to modern science. Thus, we should be happy to see people questioning established facts (no matter how ‘obvious’ they may seem), and refusing to take the ‘experts’ opinion as gospel. When done in good faith, this scrutiny is not ‘anti science’, it is the very essence of science.